At any processing plant—whether oil and gas, chemicals, you name it—people understand the importance of safety. Many of them are working with caustic, flammable or other types of hazardous materials, and it’s important to have the right processes in place to handle them. But what they might not understand is how a relatively inexpensive, commodity component like a gauge can mean life or death for employees.
Gauges might indicate pressure or temperature, certainly, but more than that, they indicate system performance. If a gauge isn’t working correctly, operators lose that window into the plant as a system. “The gauge is just one component of that,” notes Jason McClain, FAST market strategist at Wika. “If you’re not maintaining one of them, that could really lead to disaster.”
Making major headlines in recent years was BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout. As Carl Safina wrote in his book about the incident, two pressure gauges told different stories about what was happening out of sight. One gauge showed pressure building; the other didn’t. Workers made the wrong judgment about which was correct, and the company made headlines.
The human factor
When it comes to plant catastrophes, human error is so often the root cause. U.S. process plants lose more than $10 billion a year because of human error, according to the Abnormal Situation Management (ASM) Consortium.
There are significant concerns about skill gaps throughout industry, which could lead to lost productivity and very real safety hazards. In one example, Wika points to workers without the proper experience replacing a gauge with one that “looks about right.” It might look right, but it could fail quickly, leading to leaks and reportable incidents.
Such “reportable incidents” have been making headlines too often lately. Besides BP’s Deepwater Horizon blowout, other incidents in recent years have included a fire at a Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif.; a machine explosion at a plastics plant in Henderson, Ky.; and an electrical explosion at a biomass power plant in Sacul, Texas.
At a natural gas processing plant in Colorado, the choice of a wrong gauge led to a media leak, which got into the ground water. The Chevron refinery fire was caused by just one section of pipe that was 30 years old. “Most of the time it’s just the smallest thing that leads to the biggest things,” McClain says.
In response, Wika has created a Full Service Audit Team (FAST) program to help companies take care of their gauges. The service, which is provided to its customers at no extra charge, includes an instrument audit, turnaround instrument planning, instrument failure analysis, and instrument safety training.
Wika has conducted more than 250 instrument audits—reviewing more than 100,000 gauges—and found that 25% of the pressure gauges in processing plants required corrective action because they were broken, damaged or misapplied. Wika gives a rating of red, yellow or green in its audits, and that 25% is in the red, McClain points out. “If you start adding in the yellow,” he adds, “it’s closer to 60%.”
In a large plant like Dow Chemical, for example, there could be 800-1,200 gauges in a single unit, McClain says. If 60% of them are in the yellow, that’s a whole lot of potential for accidents. “And they may go weeks without ever walking by one of these gauges,” he adds.
Which isn’t to say that many of these potentially failing gauges aren’t within dangerous proximity of workers. In fact, Wika’s audits found that, within a 20 ft radius of employees, an average of almost eight instruments require corrective action.
Wika also has found that many companies aren’t even maintaining their own specifications, McClain notes. And this leads to real risks. “One of the biggest things they’re worried about is a media leak,” McClain says, noting that many of the materials plants work with are very flammable, or will turn to a poisonous gas if they come into contact with oxygen.
“Some of these places like Exxon or Dow have their own fire departments right there in the plant,” McClain says. “They want to cut off anything, especially a media leak, before it turns into a fire.”
At Chevron’s Richmond refinery, media was leaking out of a pipe. “They tried to fix it, which released a gas that ignited,” McClain says. “The natural thing to follow from that is potential fire.”
A major part of the problem is the loss of experienced workers that all types of plants face these days. “There are more and more engineers who are retiring; who’ve been in these industries 20-30 years,” McClain says. “A lot of people are retiring, and they’re not being replaced fast enough.”
In addition to attrition, organizations also are trying to run leaner and boost productivity with the same or fewer employees. “You could do five different tasks before, but now you’re charged with doing 10 different tasks,” McClain notes.
The end result is an increase in the misapplication of instruments, McClain contends. “A worker goes into a store room to replace a 200 psi gauge. They grab one off the shelf that looks close enough,” he describes. But a lot of those plants are dealing with some nasty materials; they need a gauge that not only fits correctly but is made of the right alloys, perhaps with a dual-layer diaphragm. “If it’s not going to do what it’s intended to do, it could actually cause problems.”
But once that gauge is replaced, the maintenance worker considers his job done and the plant goes on with its business. “You walk away, and you might not come back to it for a month,” McClain says. “By then, it could’ve corroded down to nothing.”
Exacerbating the experience issue is the fact that some plants have as many as 5,000 SKUs in their storage room when they could do with more like 100—it becomes very difficult for an employee to choose the right gauge for the job in a situation like this. “It’s sometimes a crap shoot,” McClain says.
At the Chevron refinery, workers noticed the pipe was failing, but thought they could keep operating until the next shutdown. “Even though they identified something was wrong,” McClain says, “it takes a lot of effort to shut down and to start again. That’s when they have an accident. So they try to avoid that.”
Plants perform regular shutdown turnarounds, perhaps once a year or every 18 months. “They do maintenance on everything they can,” McClain says. “But what we found when we go into the plants sometimes is that the instrumentation has been so neglected for a such a long time, they have a lot of surprises.” That leads to delays starting back up the units.
“Anything you’ve overlooked can really hurt you,” McClain says. “Our team can help you identify gauges that need replacing. And you don’t have to shut down the entire unit to replace a gauge. You’re actually better off replacing gauges it while it’s running.”
The service is free because Wika has a stake in its customers succeeding, McClain says. “Keeping them running and safe is in our best interest,” he says, adding, “It really hurts when one of these things fails. If a big enough incident happens, they could lose their permit. Everybody who supplies that plant could lose business.”
Gauges may not be what a plant spends the most money on, but it tells you if something else is going wrong. “A local readout is still a critical part of any operation,” McClain says. “One of the things we really stress with FAST is that we’re there to help them improve safety. That’s their No. 1 priority. Improving that safety and reliability is basically how they’re going to stay profitable and stay out of headlines. They want to keep safety top of mind. But any time they shut down, it’s costing them tons of dollars.”
Though immediate loss of life is reason enough to take care, there are plenty of other effects of media getting out, including contamination of groundwater and significant emissions. “Millions and millions of dollars are levied against these companies every year,” McClain notes.
In one case cited by Wika, a large oil company agreed to pay a more than $1 million civil penalty and to improve leak detection and repair practices to settle alleged violations of the Clean Air Act (CAA) at two of its chemical manufacturing facilities. In another case, a single refinery had to pay a $5.5 million civil penalty and spend another $5.5 million on environmentally beneficial projects to reduce emissions. A large oil and gas company paid an $8.7 million civil penalty and committed to spend more than $9.7 million on environmentally beneficial projects to further reduce emissions.